Sunday, October 02, 2005

Redeaming my Youth - 98-99 Hiphop appreciation (part 1)

As you get older, your teenage tastes start to look worse and worse in retrospect. The clothes (my biggest shame), girl (notice the singular), comedies (fuck the hate, Southpark is dope) and music that defined you at 14-16 suddenly seem absolutely juvenile when you look in the rearview mirror, which is fine because you were 14 for Christ’s sake. Music in particular is cringe worthy in most cases: 80’s teens have got Poison and Whitesnake to look back on. 70’s kids have Foreigner and Starship. The early 90’s had Vanilla Ice, Hammer, Phish and a ton of bum acts. As for my years of 98-99, it’s impossible to look back at Kid Rock or Limp Bizkit with a straight face. I mean what was I thinking?

While it’s impossible to reconcile who I am with rap metal, actual Hiphop from that era had some pretty damn good stuff in retrospect, even if it’s rarely acknowledged. It’s often looked back on as an extremely divisive era as the thug/bling camp argued fanatically with the conscious/b-boy camp in a pointless debate over authenticity while actual authentic emcees and fans were left on the sideline. But it’s also an era that introduced a whole new post-golden age generation to Hiphop and while those kids still get shitted on, that generation ultimately seems to be deciding what sells and what doesn’t nowadays, so it might be a good idea to look back at what got them into Hiphop in the first place. So here we are: 10 Hiphop albums that influenced me when I was 14-16 over two days.

DMX – It’s Dark and Hell is Hot

What I thought then: This guy could probably kill me or give me rabies.

What I think now: Crack head.

Analysis: DMX came to prominence shortly after 2pac died and early on, critics were quick to write him off as a replacement Pac. However, while it’s true that his style incorporated Pac’s heavy use of emotion, DMX trumped him by increasing the intensity about 50 times. X was the ultimate rapper for a 15 year old kid as he painted his world in large black and white brush strokes of good and evil, love and hate and god and the devil which is exactly how angry teens view the world. His voice on this early album switched from a broken squeaky yelp (which he’d later mostly abandon) to his trademark growl giving his words a Jekyll and Hyde quality with Hyde winning out 90% of the time. This psychotic quality was only amplified by the beats which were a significant milestone in rap music if you think about it. The production on this album (as well as all following Ruff Ryders work) was absolutely ghetto in a way that hadn’t been done before. Where RZA and DJ Premier made music that was extremely complex and labored; Dame Grease and Swizz beats’ stuff sounded like it was done in 5 minutes directly off the keyboard: the melodies were 1 finger compositions, drums were presets and samples were sparingly used to save money. Most of the beats were made by either quickly chopping up a funk loop before layering a pulsing drum track, or messing around with a melody until it was spooky and gothic enough. The programming made the drums pop out in a way that hadn’t been heard before and since so much of the album was composed rather than sampled, the mixing was more intricate and clear than anything before it save perhaps Dr Dre’s material. This digital feel would go on to become the industry standard for years, angering rap purists (Swizz Beats was the anti-christ) and fascinating young ones. While it would eventually be tremendously overused, there’s no doubting the consistency of It’s Dark and Hell is Hot as the entire thing works perfectly as an album, combining Pac’s paranoid rantings with an almost Wu-tang like dark view of the world. No wonder he sold 15 million records.

Verdict: A juvenile look at the world but a rather good one. DMX’s shtick may have been a little over the top but it was honest seeing as the guy was actually this crazy bipolar crack head. If you compare him by the man who took his spot (50 Cent) he looks even better. Incidentally, be sure to check his single What’s my Name off his 3rd album which is actually how I got interested in his work back in the day.

Nas – I AM

What I thought then: Who’s this flashy guy who crucified Puff Daddy?


Analysis: I had no idea about Nas’ reputation was at the time. I mean, no one mentions Illmatic during BET’s rap city. All I saw in 1999 was this smooth pretty boy type of rapper over cheap classical strings. My friend Pat, my references to all things Hiphop as 1 of the 4 black people at my school, thought he was pretty dope so I borrowed I AM, his latest work and gave it a listen and like most listeners…I couldn’t figure it out. I mean, half of it was this incredibly poetic street stuff and the rest sounded REALLY cheap. Why was everybody making a big deal over someone so uneven? Who the hell was producing this stuff? I really liked NY State of Mind Pt2, Nas is like and We will survive but what the fuck was up with Hate me now, I want to talk to you and Money is my bitch? Those songs SUCKED. Typically enough, I loved the Timabaland produced You won’t see me tonight as I had a huge crush on Alliyah at the time and wanted to imagine myself as this suave rapper type. Didn’t work out but the song is still a personal favorite. All in all the CD left me confused as to who Nas actually was, which was pretty ironic considering the title. Nas’ middle period (IE: after It was Written but before Stillmatic) was full of filler and in retrospect, it’s not TOTALLY his fault. After all, his planned double disc version of IAM was shot down by Sony after tracks leaked to the internet and once all the material was available on 3 albums (I Am, Nastradamus and The Lost Tapes) it was agreed that there was at least 2 albums worth of good stuff on there even if the filler stank. All in all, I Am would become the blueprint for all further Nas albums: some killer, some filler and a lot of disappointment over his puzzling track selection and production choices.

Verdict: A really underrated CD due to the average production but hey, it’s Nas so the lyrics are incredible even if I didn’t realize it at 15. Still, the duality between Nas’ fabricated player tendencies and his real life experience was becoming too much to bear and things would come to a head in a few years.

Juvenile – 400 Degreez

What I thought then: What did he say?

What I think now: I hope he has property outside of Louisiana.

Analysis: Montreal never got into the whole Southern thing in the 90’s and the only reason I knew about Cash Money was because BET was playing their stuff about 50 million times a day. I first heard of them while on Vacation in Florida and was intrigued by the fact that despite speaking English, I had no idea what any of them were saying. All I knew is that it sounded pretty dirty and thus immediately took a cautious liking to it: the emceeing wasn’t as refined as the NY stuff I liked but it was aaight in a different way. While Bling Bling and Hot Girl were the anthems that got originally got me interested, it was Back that Ass up and the accompanying 400 Degreez CD that really caught my ear. For one thing Back that ass up made 15 year old girls do just that at school dances, much to the consternation of any adult in the vicinity and for another thing, Juvenile was an awesome rapper. Juvie’s flow wasn’t traditional and sounded somewhere between Reggae toasting and Cajun babbling and that fascinated me to no end. Meanwhile Mannie Fresh’s 100% no sampling beats were damn good at this point as he was exiting his pure-funk period and beginning to do the more electro influenced stuff that would sky-rocket the label to superstardom. Cats may have hated, but I always appreciated the arrangements and compositions that Mannie brought to rap and put him way ahead of Swizz Beats. Nowadays, it’s pretty hard to find a southern rap fan that doesn’t consider this album a classic: while it definitely wasn’t the first rap album to incorporate bounce, it was probably the first to TRULY blow up the purely New Orleans style to the top of the pop charts. Every regional style of southern Hiphop from Houston Screw to Atlanta Crunk thus owe it a debt of gratitude for paving the way forward away from both the East-West paradigm of rap in the 90’s AND Master P’s embarrassingly cheap representation of Nawlins.

Verdict:  A great CD for the ride, the BBQ or any other situation requiring little to no brain cells as well as a fascinating look towards where mainstream Hiphop would go in the future.

Big Pun – Capital Punishment

What I thought then: This guy is going to have a heart attack

What I think now: Oh shit, this guy had a heart attack.

Analysis: I never really liked Big Pun because I thought he was a Biggie clone, which is a stupid thing to think but an opinion that makes sense at 15. Still, I couldn’t deny stuff like Dream Shaterrer or Twinz which left me absolutely astounded. I mean the guy was 400+ pounds, how the fucking hell did he speak so fast and how did he think up that stuff? This was of course tempered by his softer shit like Still not a Player which was too Bad boy-ish to me (I hated Bad Boy for some reason). What’s interesting in retrospect is how this is basically the last mid 90’s style album to have had any impact in the mainstream rap industry: Big Pun raps well, gets an extremely hardcore lineup of producers and tempers it with 1 or 2 ballads. This would have been common in 95 but by 98 DMX’s goth beats were taking over and the (relatively) dirty drums and loops on here were absolute passé… yet it sold and went platinum. THAT’S the power of a dope emcee. Of course, the main flaw back then remains the main flaw today in that it’s at least 15 minutes too long, dragging on and on with plenty of filler. However, with the skip button it’s still an album full of awesome moments.

Verdict: A really dope album that’s not quite the classic that latinos call it, mostly because of the filler. Big Pun was probably the illest pure emcee in New York at the time but it was an era where actual classics were hard to come by.

Blackstar – Mos Def and Talib Kweli are…Blackstar

What I thought then: Non threatening ass rappers.

What I think now: failed attempt at A Tribe Called Quest replacement

Analysis: Mos Def and Talib Kweli were the big black hope of a lot of people in 1998. After a couple of years of increasingly Puff-Daddy dominated Hiphop, it was clearly time for a viable alternative in the eyes of the record buying public. After all, the kids who grew up on Native Tongues and Wu-Tang Hiphop were still around only now they were in college, DJing for bad underground rap shows and generally trying to find a place in Hiphop at a time where things were increasingly thugged out. Enter Blackstar. Mos Def and Talib Kweli denounced everything that a certain subset of Hiphop hated, truly launched Rawkus records as an album producing label (Company Flow was not representative of the Rawkus sound) and generally impressed a whole lot of people in 1998. A few years later however, the Rawkus revolution is looked back on as a failure, partially because of poor management but also because those same college kids realized how unbearable their particular brand of neo-bohemian skillz and conciousness based rap was. I mean A Tribe Called Quest weren’t threatening but they were fun loving and rapped over hard beats. Same thing for De La Soul, Brand Nubian and all the other acts Rawkus tried to follow up without success due to their utter lack of personality.

The tide may have overcompensated a bit however, as a listen to the CD reveals it to be a pretty dope approximation of a more militant Tribe. The jazz loops and emphasis on DJing was particularly dope and both Mos and Talib hadn’t yet reached their pretentious peaks yet, still rapping from the streets of Brooklyn with the true shit that heads actually wanted to hear. Although there are a few hilarious moments (dissing Puffy for loop jacking moments in a Slick Rick remake after ripping off KRS-ONE twice in the same song), as a whole the album is very listenable, acting as a post Biggie and Pac version of the formerly bright jazzy true-school sound. Brown Skin Lady is particularly dope with producer J-Rawls’ intricate Gil Scott Heron chop (which still confounds producers). Although it may not have produced the Hiphop paradigm shift some had hoped for, Mos and Talib each released relatively dope solos and then fell the fuck off becoming token smart rappers, it still stands as a testament to the sound of underground NY in that era. Preach.

Verdict: Overly moralistic b-boy tales aside, a dope combination of jazz beats and genuinely honest rhymes. I didn’t like it at the time but I bet you I would have had I been in College.


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